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MMD > Archives > January 2000 > 2000.01.01 > 10Prev  Next


"Rhapsody In Blue" at the End of the Century
By Douglas Henderson

George Gershwin is one of those composers who, like Jelly Roll Morton
and Fats Waller, requires a particular performance style in order to be
effective.  Even the composer wrote in the preface to his 1931 Gershwin
Songbook that "the music should be free of sustaining pedal" and that
the performance should (quote) "cackle".  In other words, there should
be a certain energy in the rendition, a performance which expressed the
unexpected, while featuring a certain drive in the rhythm, even on the
lyric numbers.

Naturally, to hear Gershwin play live on existing audio recordings
remains the best source to absorb his performance approach, since the
style is never in the sheet music scores.  The composer's contemporaries
exhibit similar keyboard characteristics, especially Arden & Ohman on
78s, movie soundtracks and radio transcriptions (not the rolls issued in
their names!), Pauline Alpert, Harry Parella, (on audio again, only),
Roy Bargy and others of the period approximately 1924 to 1936.  Of
course, each artist had his or her own technique, so with Gershwin the
astute music lover listens for that high-speed staccato (often as soft
as a musical souffle) and the treble clearly a few dynamics over the
light bass line, when judging a performance by Oscar Levant and
contemporary interpreters.

The starting place is always the Blue Label Victor recording: the
acoustic 78 with the composer at the keyboard and featuring Paul
Whiteman's jazz musicians, most of whom had just debuted "Rhapsody In
Blue" at Aeolian Hall a few months earlier.

The Orthophonic electric remake, originally issued as a recording with
Paul Whiteman's Orchestra, was really a symphonic version with Nat
Shilkret's studio musicians and the composer at the piano; not bad, but
lacking that special style and verve, which made the acoustic recording
so special for those who are really interested in this syncopated
masterpiece.

Subsequent recordings of "Rhapsody In Blue" were very good, especially
the Oscar Levant Columbia 78 rpm set (also reissued on early monaural
LP) featuring Paul Whiteman as the conductor.  Don't confuse this
recording with the later Columbia remake with Levant and Eugene Ormandy
conducting.

On player rolls there's only one really good version to date: the
Aeolian Hall Demonstration Roll: no artist is listed and no serial
number exists.  Only 44 of these were duplicated on an Artcraft Rolls
special 'limited' order.  The demonstration roll was perforated long
before Aeolian created the commercial Duo-Art version which smacks of
Robert Armbruster, breaking most of the "Gershwin Rules" suggested at
the start of this text.

Beyond the exciting Demonstration Roll running at Tempo 100 (which is
nothing like the lackluster background music edition, starting at Tempo
60, in the Aeolian catalogue), my favourite commercial release was
largely mathematical arrangement by Max Kortlander, sold as "played by
Beryl Rubinstein" in several editions: QRS 88-Note rolls, QRS-Recordo
and QRS-Artecho, the latter two being 'reproducing' roll editions.

(An Artrio-Angelus version might have been made also, but I have no
proof of this.  However, many arrangements were being duplexed in the
later years of QRS expression roll production, both by the Pletcher
management and subsequently at Imperial Industrial Co., purchased from
QRS-DeVry in 1931.)  The QRS edition of "Rhapsody In Blue" remained in
the Imperial Industrial catalogue for decades, and was still in their
library during that short period I arranged a few rolls for the
Kortlander enterprise (with Cook making virtually all the released rolls
at that time).

The Armbruster-like "played by Gershwin" rolls (just the Duo-Art
arrangement in 88-Note form) replaced the staccato-oriented and superior
original QRS version about the time the company changed hands and moved
to Buffalo, New York, where it remains today.

Perhaps the best version of "Rhapsody In Blue" I've ever heard was a
live performance given in Dover-Foxcroft, Maine - featuring Masanobu
Ikemiya and his New York Ragtime Orchestra.  This arrangement of his was
designed to be pre-Grofe in nature, along the lines of that early Victor
Record with Whiteman and Gershwin.  Masanobu heard me perform a copy of
the Aeolian Hall roll on my Story & Clark 'Reprotone' player (see
http://www.wiscasset.net/artcraft/fotopg1.htm), and he purchased one of
the 43 duplicates and set out to create a new "Piano and Jazz Band"
version for approximately 12 musicians, with him at the Steinway 'M'
keyboard.  Both Lois Konvalinka (who heard Levant play Gershwin many
times during her years with the National Symphony in Wash., D.C.) and I
considered this particular performance to be the ultimate, even beyond
the composer, due to its improvised tricks and virtuoso playfulness.
The spirit was definitely planted in the 1920s while many new and
fascinating elements were added, all of which grew out of the Gershwin
style.

To my amazement, Masanobu told the packed audience that his newly
reconstructed version was partially based on a rare roll he had studied,
plus the acoustic Victor Record (on Cassette tape).  The surprise was
due to the fact that he didn't know that I was in attendance that
memorable evening, yet he admitted how much he had learned from the rare
Aeolian Hall arrangement!

Shortly thereafter, Masanobu's agent in New York City sent me a CD
published in Japan only (on the BMG label) which featured essentially
the same ensemble.  While the rest of the recording was very good, a
compilation of performances in many locations, the piano sounded as if
it were "down the hall and around the corner", so the musical interplay
with his crystal-clear orchestra was lost, for us.

Generally speaking, the "Rhapsody In Blue" performances one hears today
are what I call a "Hollywood Bowl" (overblown) orchestra rendition:
something like a Tchaikowsky symphony with a jazz piano dropped in here
and there for contrast.  This is quite different from the early musical
scores published by Harms, the Blue Label Victor Record and the
anonymous Aeolian Hall Duo-Art roll mentioned above.

U.S. Public Television (PBS-TV) presented a program in mid-December
1999 called "Jazz For Orchestra," featuring the Colorado Symphony
Orchestra with conductor Marlin Alsop and pianist Marcus Roberts at
the keyboard.  Beyond "Rhapsody In Blue" (1924), the program featured
"Yamecraw" (1928), the seldom-heard piece by James P. Johnson; it's
another Liszt-like jazz rhapsody, considered to be Johnson's answer to
Gershwin, and subtitled originally "A Rhapsody of Blacks and Blues".
Scott Joplin and Duke Ellington were also on the bill for this
broadcast.

It would be simple to tear these performances to shreds.  The entire
program was not anything like the old recordings and recent performances
which present that Gershwinesque style.  The pianist introduced 'be-bop'
effects and worse, so the whole aura was something like Dave Brubeck and
Stan Kenton were being superimposed on an American masterpiece.  "The
Entertainer" by Scott Joplin received a boogie-woogie texture and
throughout one kept imagining those World War II bars near shipyards
where a 'combo' played until the late hours of the night.  (Note: I'm
not against these late developments in the jazz scene, but to mix them
in with 1920s music is "mixing oil and water" for the sensitive
listener!)

The Colorado Symphony sounded as if it had been trained to read Haendel
or Telemann manuscripts at half-speed, and then were given jazzy scores
to play.  Beyond having no punch to the music, the tempo dragged through
most of the performances.  (If this were a Pianola, one would be
inclined to nudge the Tempo lever up an increment of 5 or 10 on the
scale!)

While Gershwin and the other composers lost their integrity on this PBS
broadcast, my main concern was that Marlin Alsop is one of very few
women conductors today.  She blew an opportunity to measure up to Paul
Whiteman, Red Nichols, Gunther Schuller, the stellar Original Prague
Syncopated Orchestra in the Czech Republic, and a host of other
ensembles, past and present, which do justice to what we call The Jazz
Age.  In the 1930s there was an expression, "It don't mean a thing if it
ain't got that Swing." For 1920s music you've got to have the feel, the
aura, and the style of the period, or the music never gets off the
ground.  How wonderful it would have been if Ms. Alsop had presented
something which parallels the sparkling performances preserved on
original audio recordings!

I've only experienced the second 'End of the Century' version of
"Rhapsody In Blue" in segments, viz. promotions for the IMax Disney film
"Fantasia 2000", being released today in select theatres equipped for
the wide screen high fidelity projection system.

The name of James Levine is usually a symbol that the music will not
only be good, but better than average.  In fact, only a few days ago PBS
presented a Metropolitan Opera performance of "The Marriage of Figaro"
by Mozart, featuring Cecilia Bartoli as Susanna with Maestro Levine with
the baton.  To date, I have never heard a lackluster or uninspired
broadcast or videotape or audio recording with Levine conducting --
until the Disney promotions for "Fantasia 2000" hit the airwaves.

This "Rhapsody In Blue" version is like two Hollywood Bowl orchestras
with Montovani at the helm, playing loud-loud elevator music and with
such a symphonic sound that the Gershwin 1920s "jazz band" concept is
completely gone.  It's not offensive, as the Colorado Orchestra
presentation was, but it's not electric, not exciting and it drags along
at a calculated, boring speed.

Perhaps there's some mechanical consideration to IMax film production
which requires this approach, but the overblown orchestra texture
doesn't sound like any of the countless Levine recordings and VHS
prerecorded tapes in our large collection.  I don't need a movie theatre
to hear these interpretive flaws.  Maybe the problem is that Levine was
given a hack studio orchestra which never performed well under his
legendary crisp control.  Who knows?

National Public Radio reviewed "Fantasia 2000" shortly after The Disney
Channel snippets.  The reviewer said that the (recycled) Paul Dukas
segment, "The Sorcerer's Apprentice", from the original 1940 RCA
Fantasound Technicolor "Fantasia" movie, showed the "rich and warm
animation" that was lacking in the IMax sequel.  Overall, from what I've
seen so far, the visual images of "Fantasia 2000" are fine, but the
Gershwin segment is especially heavy-handed, and nothing like what
expects with music associated with James Levine.

"Fantasia 2000" should introduce the rock generation to the delights
of classical music, as "Fantasia" did for me in my youth.  Its only
letdown for me was the thumpy Gershwin music.  As for seeing it, there
are no IMax theatres in this area of New England; both NPR and a musical
friend, earlier, told me that the terms that Disney imposed upon the
select cinema locations have caused an industry rejection so far.  (That
is, no other IMax films are to be shown for three months plus Disney
gets 50% of the box office receipts.)  There are only certain theatres
built for IMax, and many don't want to lock into these stringent terms.
(A similar problem faced the short-lived Fox Grandeur format in 1930:
only certain Fox movie houses had the equipment to run "The Movietone
Follies" and "The Big Trail".  Disney should learn from history!)

Thus, as 2000 begins, let's hope that more people listen and learn from
other snappy, effervescent performances of "Rhapsody In Blue".  They
exist, and are well worth the trouble to attend, when given live.
Meanwhile, there's always the Blue Label Victor Record, available in
cassette, LP and CD formats.  PBS outdid itself a day later with the
ballet "Le Corsaire" featuring music by Drigo, Delibes, Minkus and other
composers.  (What old roll collection doesn't feature "Pas Des Fleurs"
from "Naila" and/or the Drigo "Serenade", both part of this pastiche
ballet score).  That broadcast more than made up for Gershwin-in-be-bop,
which mixed up familiar melodies and rhythms with the Monk and Parker
effects of a later period!

With PBS and Disney, the good outweighs the bad but, musically-speaking,
when it comes to his stirring "Rhapsody In Blue", Gershwin has been
relegated to a side alley.

Happy New Year!

Regards from Maine,

Douglas Henderson
Artcraft Music Rolls


(Message sent Sun 2 Jan 2000, 03:49:03 GMT, from time zone GMT-0500.)

Key Words in Subject:  Blue, Century, End, Rhapsody

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